NEW YORK – Despite the numerous talks and meetings by India’s top government ministers with their US counterparts, and even by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, there’s an insidious assault on the H-1B visa by the Trump administration, which threatens to upend and dismantle the work visa program that benefits Indian workers the most, without any reforms.
The Trump administration is using the same tactic of ‘extreme vetting’ to keep out travelers from some Muslim-majority nations, in their effort to downsize the use of H-1B visa by American companies.
Reports say that the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is now delaying issuing the H-1B visa in the tens of thousands, to not only those who got through the lottery system for the 85,000 annual visas, but also to those who have filed for extension of the visa.
The result is panic amongst foreign workers and American companies alike.
The Boston Globe reported that through the first eight months of 2017, USCIS issued more than 85,000 “requests for evidence” to applicants for H-1B visas, the highest number since 2009 and a 45 percent increase over the comparable period in 2016. These RFEs require companies to provide documentation to prove the proposed employee both had special skills and will be paid at a fair rate.
Attorney Prasant D. Desai from Iandoli Desai & Cronin, a Boston-based law firm that processes H-1B visas for academic institutions and companies, said that the pace at which the administration has introduced the delay-tactics is extraordinary, reported the Globe.
“They’re going at every part of the program, really,” Desai said. “I think the immigration practitioners like myself knew this was going to happen. It’s just that the speed at which it is happening is a little breathtaking.”
It’s not only Trump’s emphasis on ‘Buy American, Hire American’. It’s the rigorous scrutiny through interviews that’s becoming a frustrating hurdle. Interviews are now done not only in new H-1B visa applications but also in applications requesting extensions.
GeekWire quoted Seattle-based immigration attorney Tahmina Watson as saying, “In the last two months there’s been a seismic shift in how (H-1B) visas are being approved.”
Watson said that there “will likely be about 40 percent denials in this year’s H-1B cap and that’s going to have a big shape in how next year’s visa activities happen.”
“Businesses are going to be impacted quite drastically and if it’s not apparent yet, it will be apparent next year,” she said.
Lola Zakharova, another Seattle-based immigration attorney who works with corporate clients, told GeekWire, “The USCIS started challenging H-1Bs which would have no problem being approved in the past.”
The new phenomenon has not been lost on writers of immigration issues.
Suzanne Sataline, writing for The Washington Post, in September, in a column headlined ‘Trump has started a brain drain back to India, noted: “Despite a chummy Rose Garden meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in June, the permanent legal status of many Indians in America has become far more uncertain since Trump’s election.”
For many of the 2.4 million Indian nationals living in the United States, including roughly 1 million who are scientists and engineers, the fears are existential; although roughly 45 percent are naturalized citizens, hundreds of thousands still depend on impermanent visas that must be periodically renewed, Sataline wrote, pointing out that changes in the work visa system could trigger large economic and intellectual losses, especially in states with many South Asian residents such as California and New Jersey.
Since Trump’s election, the number of Indian-born residents in the United States searching for jobs back in India has climbed more than tenfold, consulting firm Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu found. Six hundred people were searching in December, and the number spiked in March to 7,000.
This year, the number of people applying for the H-1B visa dropped for the first time in four years – from 236,000 last year to 199,000, the government reported. Nearly 127,000 Indians were given H-1B visas to work in the United States in the 2016 fiscal year, more than any other nationality. Next in line were the Chinese, with 21,600 visas.
It’s likely that with the RFEs growing, American companies would be wary of trying to hire foreign talent, and the 85,000 H-1B visas up for grabs, including 20,000 for F-1 visa graduate students from US educational institutions, may actually not find enough takers in the 2018 cycle.
There’s also a bill proposed in Congress, which if enacted to law, will see the minimum salary for an H-1B visa, rise to $90,000, apart from rigorous scrutiny of academic and professional background, to see if it matches a specialty occupation. That law would surely dent the chances of most recent graduate students of clinching a visa to work in America, apart from shutting out lower level tech workers from India. It would be a big blow to majority of Indian outsourcing companies in the US.
Vivek Wadhwa, a distinguished fellow at Carnegie Mellon University, lambasted the Trump administration, in The Washington Post: “The platform he got elected on, that hatred, denigrating other religions, it wasn’t making America great again and uplift the world. It’s ‘We’re going to make America great’ at the cost to the rest of the world. We’re doing long-term damage here. At the same time, the opportunities in India are growing exponentially. They don’t have to leave.”
(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)